Overcoming Polarization | Gene Veith
If Americans are culturally and politically polarized, and even different parties and factions are internally polarized, what is the way forward? Can we – or should we – overcome our polarization?
First of all, polarization is not necessarily a bad thing. Moral and spiritual conflicts are part of the human condition and they do not allow compromise or unification. “For what partnership does justice have with anarchy? Or what communion has light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14). Of course, not all political or cultural conflicts are of this nature, and treating them as if they were is a symptom of what happens when worldly ideologies take the place of religion. And yet some of our conflicts, like the battles over abortion, are indeed moral and spiritual struggles.
But even in secular terms, polarization and conflict are inevitable. Our Constitution is designed specifically for a society made up of competing interests, competing ideas and competing factions. The genius of our constitutional order is that it depends on such conflicts, including inherent conflicts between different branches of government, to control and balance itself. In such a vibrant but controversial society, individual freedom can flourish in ways that it simply cannot in a society that emphasizes oneness and therefore conformity. The other genius of our constitutional order is that it allows a diverse nation to move forward despite and even because of these differences, because these checks and balances force factions to work together without stifling them.
And that’s our problem today. We are so polarized – nationally and politically, but socially, economically and often within our families – that we come close to the “war of all against all” theorized by Thomas Hobbes as the “state of nature” before the rise of the contracts. Theologically, God designed the “States” of family, Church and State, obliging sinful human beings to live and work together in spite of themselves, where they can discover the vocation and love of neighbor. Today, states are threatened by both toxic individualism and toxic tribalism.
So how do you overcome polarization, whether dysfunctional or necessary? One way to achieve unity, for better or for worse, is to have a common enemy. The four factions of the Democratic Party that we blogged about yesterday have all come together against Donald Trump. Without him, they started fighting again.
The last moment of national unity we enjoyed was in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Pearl Harbor also united America against a common enemy. Wars have this effect, but they don’t have to be wars of choice – like in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan – that are polarizing. Unifying wars are defensive, in which citizens put aside their differences to defend themselves against a real threat to the nation.
Such wars, of course, are worse than polarization, and some wars have historically been started by corrupt governments to unify and distract their citizens. We must beware of other manifestations of the “common enemy” syndrome. Within nations, groups can be turned into scapegoats, blamed as the source of the country’s problems, and demonized in order to unite the rest of the nation. Jews have been a convenient scapegoat, not only in Hitler’s Germany but in other countries throughout history. This is often the state of mind that underlies other types of religious persecution, including that of Christians, for example in ancient Rome. (I don’t think American Christians need to worry about this now, although it might someday happen.)
Another way to overcome polarization is to form new coalitions and new alignments. Already, some of the opposing poles show similarities with each other. For example, both progressives and Trumpist conservatives complain about the power and influence of big business. During the debacle of President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, he received criticism from Democrats and Republicans, but progressives and Trumpist conservatives praised him for ending the war in Afghanistan. Those whose factions cannot stand each other, and yet have common interests and beliefs, which may one day come to the fore.
A curious phenomenon is the political realignment of American social classes. Traditionally, the Democrats were the party of the working class. To this day, it is a mark of the identity of the party. Among the faction of “Democrats” we blogged about yesterday are many aging union members, ethnic neighborhood dwellers, and black Americans who have always voted Democrats no matter what. And yet Donald Trump’s strongest constituency is in the working class, especially the white working class, although he has made inroads with blacks and Hispanics, due to their common class interests and beliefs. .
During this time, the Democratic Party has become dominated by the white, affluent, college-educated middle class, as well as the “awakened capitalists” of big business. Big business and the bourgeoisie were once the electorate of Republicans! There are still a few, just as there are still working class people among Democrats, but it amounts to a seismic reversal of political parties. And, as we saw yesterday, the most radical faction, the “progressive left”, for all its outrage against racism and “white supremacy” and its determination to overthrow the established order, is the most white of all!
These radicals realize that they cannot make much revolution without the proletariat. See, for example, the far-left periodical Jacobin Magazine, which recently published an article claiming to show “Why Progressives Need the Working Class”.
Likewise, awakened and wealthy Democrats are worried about their party’s proposed confiscatory wealth taxes, as well as threats of stifling regulation on their businesses and the financial sector. At some point, their economic interests might at some point trump the social status they enjoy from their progressive poses.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, the Republicans are realizing the appeal of a conservatism oriented not towards big business but towards the working class. Before the New Deal, populism favored liberal Democrats. But now it’s populism that has propelled Donald Trump. In his analysis of recent elections in Virginia and elsewhere, titled The Woke Meet Their Match: Parents, Andrew Sullivan concludes: “Trumpism without Trump has a bright future.
Other coalitions are possible. Libertarians could ally themselves with the types of companies in the free market. They could fight against a culturally conservative multiracial labor party. Radical leftists could be ousted for lack of a large electorate and sent back into exile.
The point is, alliances and factions change, ideologies change, and events impact human affairs. This is the nature of the temporal and worldly realm, which is why they do not function as religions.
Image by wittdigital via Pixabay